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 17, 2011
QUESTION: Yeah. Finally. I wanted to ask you just a couple of things.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The Secretary and Ashton particularly was quite strong today, at least getting up to the edge of what’s going to happen. So what are we looking at? These are sanctions --
MR. TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: -- next steps that they’re saying within – she said hours, the Secretary said days.
MR. TONER: Which I suppose can be --
QUESTION: Can be both.
MR. TONER: Either would be applicable. But I think what’s --
QUESTION: Or years made of hours.
MR. TONER: -- important to – I think what’s important to reinforce from their comments this morning is that this is something that not just the United States, but the international community is looking at. Certainly, it’s something that we’re working closely with the EU on. Both the United States and the EU have obviously implemented an initial round of sanctions, and I think we’re look at – as both Secretary and Lady Ashton, High Representative Ashton, said, what next steps, what possible additional pressure we can provide really to crystallize our message to the Syrian government, which is that your current behavior is unacceptable, the violence must stop, and you must make legitimate efforts to address the aspirations of your people.
QUESTION: But if – could I follow up, please --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- because on that point that – those three points, we’ve heard that. But both leaders this morning were saying that essentially the international community has given up any hope that Asad is going to follow through on any of his promises to reform. It sounds like you’re at the nth degree. I mean, is it fair to say that you – that you and your colleagues --
MR. TONER: I think we’ve used that, yeah.
QUESTION: -- have just decided – where are you in deciding that he – there’s no hope that he’s going to do what he wants, and now it’s time to call on him to step down?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve used the metaphor – overused the metaphor probably of the window closing on Asad’s opportunities to enact meaningful reform. It’s hard for me to say whether there’s still a crack – to belabor that metaphor but – anymore. But clearly, the Syrian Government has talked a lot about reform, has made a lot of promises but done very little. So again, we’re trying to seek additional ways to apply pressure on them so that they – at the very least, at the minimum, stop the violence against their people, but then in the longer term take steps to address their aspirations.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. prepared to --
MR. TONER: Go ahead, Andy.
QUESTION: The Secretary’s comments this morning said directly that Asad has made his true intentions clear, so it didn’t seem as though she’s waffling around the Syrian Government or evil doers in their administration, but talking about Asad himself holding direct responsibility. Is that now the U.S. position that he himself is responsible for what is going on on the ground? And does that mean that he is becoming a more likely target for U.S. sanctions?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve never closed the door on him as a possible target for additional measures. And I think the Secretary’s words speak for themselves. She was clear in saying that he’s responsible ultimately for his actions.
QUESTION: And given the bluntness of the Secretary’s comments doesn’t that now perhaps create the public expectation that perhaps there might be a revisitation of this before the Security Council and look at something similar to Resolution 1973 in terms of sort of forceful action?
MR. TONER: Again, you’re asking me to make several leaps here and I’m not going to do it. I’m just going to say that we’re looking at options and ways to apply pressure on Asad.
QUESTION: Is there any way of reading this perhaps as a signal that the President may be addressing this in his remarks on Thursday?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to attempt to preview the President’s remarks. I’ll leave the White House to do that. But it’s certainly no secret that he’s going to talk about the region, and I’m sure he’ll touch on many of these issues.
QUESTION: So why would the Secretary then make this essentially personal by calling out by name Bashar al-Asad and indicating that the – that there at least – it can be legitimately interpreted that the world is fed up with his behavior and that now he must be held to account for it?
MR. TONER: Well, I think the world is increasingly concerned about his behavior and the behavior of his regime. And I think it’s no surprise that we have said – we said all along we’re going to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
QUESTION: Mark, the --
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- Secretary also said that U.S. best estimate of deaths is around a thousand people --
MR. TONER: A thousand.
QUESTION: -- which is several hundred more than most of the activist groups are saying.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: What does that – what are those estimates based on? Do you have anything to back it up? And do you have anything on these allegations of mass graves?
MR. TONER: We’ve obviously are looking into the allegations about mass graves. Obviously, we’re somewhat limited, and I’ve talked about this before, in what we can do to verify these claims. As far as the 1,000 estimate, I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t know. I’m aware that there’s a range there, but I’m not sure why – what explains – or why we’re on the high end of that range, but I’m sure there’s – I am aware there’s a range.
QUESTION: Our teams in Lebanon have also interviewed people escaping from Syria who are describing --
MR. TONER: And that’s true.
QUESTION: -- the brutality firsthand.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Rosalind. That’s an important point is we are looking at refugees obviously fleeing Syria and relying on firsthand accounts, so that feeds into it.
QUESTION: If you confirm that these are mass graves, what will you do?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to predict the outcome. It’s – these are deeply disturbing reports, but they’re on top of – these are not one-off reports. They’re on top of a steady drumbeat of human rights abuses over the past weeks, indeed months, and we’re obviously concerned about it. We’ve raised it at the UN Human Rights Commission and we’ll seek additional action if warranted.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Jill.
QUESTION: The Secretary in an interview not so long ago said that she – she was asked would you be happy if Asad were gone, and she said it depends on what comes next. Do you – does she – does the State Department have any idea of what would come after?
MR. TONER: Well, I think what we would like to see is some sort of – you’re asking me to speculate wildly here.
QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: So I’ll just caveat it with – my remarks with that. But we’d like to see some sort of credible democratic process that attempts to address the aspirations of the Syrian people. We talked at the beginning of this issue or this situation, crisis, that we wanted to see Asad address the aspirations with a meaningful reform. As I said, that – as we’ve gone down this path of increased abuses of what appears to be targeting civilian populations and going after and rounding up innocent civilians, that becomes increasingly unlikely. And so that – as that – as we go down that path, those options for real reform decrease, and we – but we still need to see, at some point, the Syrian people’s aspirations addressed.
QUESTION: Did the Obama Administration make a mistake by thinking it could engage effectively with Asad in the first two years?
MR. TONER: Not at all. We believed it was always important, and we still believe it’s important, that we have a senior U.S. Government official on the ground who can speak on behalf of the U.S. Government, who can convey our concerns, and speak, as I said, as an official U.S. voice in Damascus.
QUESTION: But – the U.S. can speak all at once, but was there ever any real sense --
MR. TONER: I don’t think --
QUESTION: -- that Damascus is listening?
MR. TONER: Look, I don’t think we were under any illusions that this would be an easy dialogue. We – but we felt it was important that – again, that there be a dialogue so that we can, at the very least, express ourselves candidly.
Is that it?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- quick one on --
MR. TONER: She was writing, and I thought I was free.
QUESTION: I forgot. On this clash of the NATO aircraft and the Pakistani forces --
MR. TONER: Yeah. I don’t have any more detail.
QUESTION: Is it – do you have anything --
MR. TONER: I know NATO’s looking at an investigation.
QUESTION: Even a statement of how serious it is?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I know that NATO’s looking into it and investigating it. We’ll wait for the outcome of that investigation.
QUESTION: Do you know if there were any contact with the Pakistanis through your Embassy or anything --
MR. TONER: I’m not sure it would be a --
QUESTION: -- following the incident or anything?
MR. TONER: -- bilateral. It would probably be through ISAF and the Pakistani army – military is what I would assume. There’s mechanisms in place for that.