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Middle East Digest - May 16, 2011

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Washington, DC
May 16, 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 May 16, 2011

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QUESTION: Mark, earlier today in Islamabad, Senator Kerry said that Secretary Clinton would soon be making an announcement that she would travel to Pakistan. How soon?

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: Sure. I don’t have any specific details to announce. Obviously, we do that normally through a travel announcement. But the Secretary does plan to visit Pakistan in order to have an in-depth strategic discussion about our cooperation and to convey the U.S. Government’s views on the way forward of Pakistan. She’ll go when she can have those discussions in the right context and with the right preparation, and we’re engaged right now with the Pakistanis to lay that groundwork.

Just over the past 24 hours she spoke with senior Pakistani leaders, from President Zardari to Prime Minister Gillani, as well as General Kayani. And also, I understand that Special Representative Marc Grossman will be heading to Pakistan and he’ll also continue those discussions and, as I said, he’ll continue to lay the groundwork for the Secretary’s eventual visit.

QUESTION: So when is Grossman going?

MR. TONER: Grossman is supposed to leave this week. I don’t have a precise day. I’ll get those dates for you once we have them.

QUESTION: So there were three phone calls by the Secretary – Zardari, Gillan, and Kayani, right?

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Mark, I believe you said the Secretary was scheduled to go at the end of May for the already-scheduled Strategic Dialogue Round Three in Islamabad. You’re saying eventually. Does that mean that that schedule is no longer firm?

MR. TONER: I don’t know specifically what – how that impacts those scheduled meetings. When I have more details, I’ll give them to you.

QUESTION: She’s not confirmed to go in late May, as was previously scheduled?

MR. TONER: My understanding is that we’re laying the groundwork for her visit and we’ll announce those dates when we have them, when we’re confident the groundwork has been laid.

QUESTION: Will she meet with Pakistani opposition figures?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure. Usually, she meets with a broad range of civil society and opposition figures. I don’t know what – I mean, again, her schedule is in – would be in flux. I don’t want to get into too much detail. We haven’t announced anything beyond her intent to go there.

QUESTION: So what did she tell Gillani, Kayani and Zardari?

MR. TONER: Well, you know we don’t get into the substance of those kinds of discussions, but I think we talked about the current state of play, where we’re at, but also she was – she talked about a way forward in the relationship. Obviously, as we’ve said here and from the White House and as well as Capitol Hill, that Usama bin Ladin’s whereabouts raised some concerns and questions, and we’re trying to move on to address those questions as well as move forward with the relationship, because we feel it’s in both our countries’ interests.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt, and then --

QUESTION: Well, I just – she didn’t tell them that she would be coming?

MR. TONER: She said she – yes, I’m sorry. She did say that she was – again, I mean, just to paraphrase what I just said initially, that she plans to visit to have an in-depth strategic discussion. But again, we want to make sure that those discussions can take place in the right context.

Yeah. Go ahead, Tejinder.

QUESTION: Today, the much-awaited Rana trial is starting in Chicago and they are doing the jury selection and the – it hasn’t started. But in that, the star witness will be from the U.S. Government prosecutors – will be Headley, who is saying that ISI role in the Mumbai attacks. So by all this, you don’t like the word “whitewash” that we are doing with Pakistan, so we are going to just forget every – all the connections that ISI has with the terrorists?

MR. TONER: Tejinder, I think we’ve been clear, again, that this is an ongoing legal process, trial, and so I can’t say a lot about it. But speaking globally about the Mumbai attacks, we’ve asked that all parties answer questions that have been raised by the Mumbai attacks. And --

QUESTION: The six Americans who were –

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- were killed in that – those attacks, and the ISI connection with the terror organizations is being a point of – is the U.S. doing anything to find those connections, or is it just we are going ahead as if nothing is wrong between U.S. and Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Well, again, those are allegations, and we’ve asked the Pakistani Government to address those allegations in the past. There’s a criminal – or there’s a – rather, a trial ongoing now that’s aiming to answer some of those questions. But I don’t want to get into it beyond that.

QUESTION: I know there are allegations. FBI has filed charges in the Chicago court in which they have mentioned Major Iqbal, who is a ISI officer.

MR. TONER: Lalit, I just need to be – I mean, there’s a legal process underway, and anything I say from here can obviously --

QUESTION: Do you know anything about (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Is anyone from this building sitting in on that hearing?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll ask that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Pakistan?


QUESTION: Do you have a comment on the killing of Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank along the borders on Lebanon and along the border with Syria by Israeli forces?

MR. TONER: Sure. Thanks for raising it. We obviously have been following events there and are aware that protestors were killed and injured in border clashes there with Israeli defense forces. Clearly, we regret these deaths and injuries. To avoid an escalation of the situation, we encourage all parties to exercise restraint and to maintain the integrity and security of border areas. Israel, like any other country, has the right to secure its borders. We also would like to commend the Palestinian security forces for their work in helping to keep order in the West Bank. As of today, there has been no other reported fatalities.

QUESTION: But do you condemn the killing of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators?

MR. TONER: Again, I thought I was pretty clear in saying that we regret these deaths and injuries and express our sympathies and condolences, but just to make clear that Israel does have the right to defend its borders.


QUESTION: A quick follow-up?

MR. TONER: Let’s move it around a little bit.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On this --

QUESTION: On this subject --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Josh can go.


MR. TONER: Go, Josh.

QUESTION: So do you – does the State Department believe that the Syrian Government played a role in allowing the border crossing to be open and creating this situation?

MR. TONER: Well, we do think that this is an effort by the Syrian Government to play a destabilizing role. They’re – it’s clearly an effort by them to take focus off the situation that’s happening right now in Syria, and it’s a cynical use of the Palestinian cause to encourage violence along its border as it continues to repress its own people within Syria.

QUESTION: And do you see a role of Iran in the Lebanon border crossing skirmish?

MR. TONER: Well, again, these – Syria and Iran continue to play unhelpful roles and – in destabilizing the region.

QUESTION: And have you communicated with the Syrian Government through our ambassador there?

MR. TONER: I’m not – I’d have to verify. I can imagine he speaks to the Syrian authorities frequently and I could imagine he would convey these views, but I’ll confirm that.

QUESTION: Are you aware of the arrest in the West Bank of a Palestinian – or American citizen, Palestinian academic, whose last name is Qumsiya?

MR. TONER: Matt, I’m not. We’ll look into it.

QUESTION: Can you check into that?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: He was arrested by the Israelis as part of a --

MR. TONER: Was that today, Matt?

QUESTION: -- or during a march.

MR. TONER: Or – was that today or over the weekend?

QUESTION: I believe it was on Saturday or Sunday.

MR. TONER: Okay. We’ll look into it.


MR. TONER: Do you have the name?

QUESTION: Yeah. I’ll give it to you.

MR. TONER: All right. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on that question. Do you think that the Israelis used excessive force in dealing with the demonstration – demonstrators?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think what we’re looking for is restraint on all sides. We certainly don’t want to see a continuation of the violence, and certainly, Palestinian security forces did play a constructive role, and that was an encouraging sign. But we call on all sides, I think, to show restraint moving forward. We don’t want to see any more deaths or violence.

QUESTION: While the Secretary was meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, Prime Minister Netanyahu was addressing the Knesset. And some of the things that he said was basically that there is – Jerusalem will be the eternal capital of Israel, the refugees situation has to be solved outside of Israel, the settlement blocs will stay, and these obviously are final status issues. Do you --

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. The first thing was going to be --

QUESTION: Jerusalem will be always the eternal capital of Israel, not the (inaudible).

QUESTION: Oh, the (inaudible).

MR. TONER: Eternal, sorry.


QUESTION: Eternal.

QUESTION: Eternal, sorry. So --

MR. TONER: That’s okay. I thought you said internet. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, (inaudible). (Laughter.) Eternal and – eternal.

MR. TONER: Sorry, thanks.


MR. TONER: No worries. I think I got it right. Look --

QUESTION: So do you think that the peace process is not going anywhere considering the statements he’s making?

MR. TONER: Well, no. I don’t want to be that pessimistic. Obviously, there are tremendous challenges in the peace process moving forward. We obviously took a hit last week with Senator Mitchell resigning. But that process continues, and Senator Mitchell has created a strong team, and they’re going to continue to work to move this process forward. As you said, ultimately, all these are issues that were raised today, are issues that can only be resolved through direct negotiations. And that remains our ultimate goal here. But we look forward to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit at the end of this week with the President.

QUESTION: Well, a process is continuing, isn’t it?

MR. TONER: The peace process.

QUESTION: Well, yeah. I know.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: The peace process – how is it continuing?

MR. TONER: Well, again, David Hale is acting now in the interim capacity as – and leading this team and he’ll continue to talk to both parties, and we’ll continue to make efforts to get them back to the negotiating table. That remains our thrust here.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: -- about Syria?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. About Syria?


MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Over the weekend, the Syrians put out this statement that said that people that are involved in the violence have until May 15th to kind of hand themselves in or face legal repercussions. And I was wondering what you thought of that statement, because it kind of seemed like there would be a bit of a witch hunt going on for these people if they didn’t that evoke a lot of kind of ugly images of --

MR. TONER: Yeah. It’s troubling. I mean – and it speaks to also what we’ve seen, which is Syrian security forces going from town to town and arbitrarily arresting people. And unfortunately, it’s keeping in the – and it’s in keeping with this kind of behavior. I’m not aware of the statement, but it’s obviously troubling.

QUESTION: So it’s obviously troubling, they’re going on a witch hunt for people from town to town, yet you still think that this government has legitimacy?

MR. TONER: Well, again, it – ultimately, that’s a decision for the Syrian people. But I thought I was pretty clear last week in saying that any window this government had is rapidly closing. It needs to stop its current behavior and take steps to address the aspirations of the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Well, but is it ultimately really up to the Syrian people? I mean, it looks as if the protests are expanding. They had protests in Damascus; they’re having a lot more protests throughout the country. So it kind of seems as if most of the peoples in Syria have decided --

MR. TONER: And I think what you’re going to see is – what you are seeing, in fact, is the more the Syrian Government cracks down on these protestors, they’re only strengthening their cause, and there’s no way to resolve this situation through violence. Look, we’re going to continue to work this with our international partners. This is obviously something that’s of great concern both to the Secretary and the President and everyone, but also on an international level. We’re discussing with our allies and partners about a way forward and a way to address and put pressure on Asad and his regime to make them stop.

QUESTION: Because I mean – sorry, go ahead.


MR. TONER: I mean, these are not – I mean, these are difficult situations and --

QUESTION: Difficult situations --

MR. TONER: And the President’s going to talk about a lot of this this week in his speech. So, I mean, but obviously we’re aware that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to the situation going on in many of these countries. But we’re aware of it, and we’ve instituted sanctions. We’ve taken it to the Human Rights Commission. We’re pursuing other measures against Asad and his regime, and we’re trying to keep the pressure on them.

QUESTION: When the window would be closed?

MR. TONER: I mean – (laughter) – look, no, I mean, Michel, it’s a serious, serious situation, and every day brings more discouraging news. And we’re obviously working, as I said, with our international partners to find ways that we can convey our concerns to the Syrians and convince them that they need to stop this kind of behavior and to take steps to address the people’s concerns.

QUESTION: So why do you think the regime is still legitimate till now?

MR. TONER: Why do I what?

QUESTION: Why do you think the regime in Syria is still legitimate?

MR. TONER: Look, I think that they need to – that it’s very clear that the Syrian people have these aspirations. They’re only growing in strength their cause. And thus far, the Syrian Government, which has talked about reform in the past and even continues to talk about reform, has done very little. We’ve not seen much in the way of action. And so, as our concerns build, we’re trying to convey our concerns to the Syrian Government. We’ve done this through our ambassador. We’ve done this in concert with the EU and other partners, and we’re going to continue to apply pressure on them. But again, this is a very fluid situation.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary spoke about Syria specifically with King Abdullah?

MR. TONER: I don’t know because I haven’t gotten a readout, but they talked – they said they were going to discuss regional issues. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up, Matt.


MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- is it true that you are getting cautioned by the Saudi King and by the Gulf states against taking any sort of severe measures against Syria?

MR. TONER: Against Syria?

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Are you getting cautioned by the Saudi monarch and the other monarchies in the Gulf against taking more severe measures against Syria?

MR. TONER: No. Look, Said, we’re looking at Syria on its own merits or its own --

QUESTION: Demerits.

MR. TONER: -- demerits, thank you – (laughter) – and not – look, I don’t know how it could be clearer in saying how we’re trying to address this. We’ve taken it to the UN. We’ve issued unilateral sanctions. We’ve worked with the EU, who’s also passed a strong set of sanctions. We continue to talk about this with our friends in the region and we’re going to continue to seek ways to apply pressure, and we’ve also been conveying through our ambassador in Damascus.

Go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: But I mean, don’t you think that this regime has demonstrated that it really doesn’t care about all that? I mean, upwards – like close to a thousand people were killed by UN estimates, over 9,500 people arrested. I mean, these are serious numbers. And so I – don’t you think that they’ve just shown at what lengths they’ll go to to crush this opposition? I mean, you say it’s up to the Syrian people, but when there’s force used of this level, it’s --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- really not up to them.

MR. TONER: But --

QUESTION: So I just don’t know like what you’re waiting really for this to – for you to say, okay, we’re not going to – we don’t see this regime as legitimate and it’s lost its legitimacy to rule. I just don’t know what the trigger would be.

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t think it’s a failure on the Syrian Government’s part to continue to lash out violently against this movement on its own soil and to go after these individuals and to exhort – or resort to violence. They’re only digging themselves in deeper. They’re not trying to – even though they initially had talked about reform, that’s gone by the wayside. And so it’s really – the onus is on the Syrian Government to show whether it has any intention of reforming or not.

QUESTION: Well, don’t you think they’ve already shown their intention not to?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re concerned about it. We’re looking at additional ways to apply pressure. But we are where we’re at.

QUESTION: Talking about pressure, are you considering taking sanctions about – against Asad himself?

MR. TONER: I think we’ve all – we’ve always said that that’s an option that remains on the table but I don’t have anything new to announce. But we’re looking at all the kinds of options.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you expect President Obama to send a strong message on Thursday to the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: Look, I’ll refer you to the White House. I know he’s going to talk about the situation in the region, obviously, the great change sweeping over the Middle East. But I don’t want to get out in front of my colleagues at the White House, including, obviously, the President.

QUESTION: What is the international community doing to protect civilians in Syria?

MR. TONER: In Syria?


MR. TONER: Michel, obviously, it’s a difficult situation, it’s a difficult context, and we continue to call on the government to provide access for media organizations to be able to report accurately some of the things that are happening on the ground. We’ve initiated sanctions against some of the actors who’ve been planning these kinds of operations – police actions, if you will – against civilians. And we’re looking at other ways to apply that sanctions pressure and also trying to elevate it to an international level. And obviously, as – it’s not just the United States that is concerned about this; it’s our other allies and partners who are increasingly concerned both in the region and elsewhere, including the EU. I agree –

QUESTION: They’re not protecting civilians.

MR. TONER: I agree it’s a challenge. We’ve seen this challenge elsewhere, but those are what – that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: On this very point, could the United States conceivably take initiative to organize an international fact-finding mission that has the European Union, the Arab League, the UN –

MR. TONER: Well, the – right, right.

QUESTION: -- Amnesty International?

MR. TONER: I mean, I believe that issue is, right now, with the UN Human Rights Commission that’s asked for access to Syria to conduct such a mission. And we would obviously support that.

In the back, Sean.

QUESTION: Change of topic?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: A new UN report just came out linking technology sharing – missile technology sharing between Iran and North Korea. Do you have anything on that?

MR. TONER: I did see that. We’ll try to get a reaction. Obviously, it raises concerns, but concerns that we’ve had in the past. But I’ll try to get a more substantive reaction for you.

QUESTION: And then also, I mean, part of the report is saying that China is facilitating this sharing. Does that concern you at all? Is it something you’ve talked to them about?

MR. TONER: Again, we’re looking at the report and we’re studying it, but these are concerns in terms of intelligence sharing between North Korea and Iran that we’ve raised before. I’m sorry – not intelligence sharing, but nuclear missile technology, rather, sharing. But again, we’ll – we’ve raised these concerns in the past and we’ll continue to do so.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: This is another question on extradition. But has the State Department started a process to get access to Pakistanis named in the case – in Rana’s case? This is from the Justice Department sources that the request has come --

MR. TONER: Have we started an extradition process?


MR. TONER: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: To get access to the Pakistani nationals who have been named in that indictment.

MR. TONER: It sounds like a Department of Justice question. I don’t have any answer.

QUESTION: Yes. They have said that they cannot get direct access to the Pakistanis; it has to go through the State Department. And so, has the State Department acted on the request?

MR. TONER: I’ll have to check. I don’t know.

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