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 31, 2011
MR. TONER: Secretary Clinton will go the United Arab Emirates for a meeting of the Libya Contact Group on June 9th. This meeting will build on the last Contact Group meeting held in Rome and will allow the United States to discuss with its international partners the range of issues with respect to addressing this situation in Libya, including the ongoing implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973.
QUESTION: So you – it’s been a while. It’s been a couple days now because of the long weekend. So how are things with Pakistan? Everything back there fine and dandy with the –
MR. TONER: Well, look, the Secretary was there on Friday. It was a productive trip. She was there obviously with Vice Admiral Mullen, and while there, they had meetings. They discussed the range of issues that are on our agenda. They talked about the shared challenges. But I think the bottom line is that, while we continue to ask Pakistan to address some of the questions that were raised in the wake of the bin Ladin raid, that we’re committed to a relationship moving forward with Pakistan to confront the shared threat of terrorism.
Andy. Same topic?
QUESTION: No, not the same topic. Anybody else got anything on Pakistan? No? Okay. I was wondering – it’s Syria if we could change for a moment. President Asad today is apparently offering a general amnesty, at least according to Syrian state television. I’m wondering if you have any reaction to that, and do you think –
MR. TONER: No. I mean, I’ve just seen those reports, Andy, before coming down here. Obviously, he’s said a lot of things in recent weeks and months, but we’ve seen very little concrete action by President Asad. He’s talked about reform, but we’ve seen very little in the way of action in that front. And so again, it just underscores the fact that he needs to take steps – concrete steps, not rhetoric, to address what’s going on in the country.
QUESTION: But wouldn’t general amnesty be a concrete step? I mean, you’re waiting to see people walk out of a jail basically?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Right. I mean, but at this point, it’s simply more talk about reform, more talk about addressing the situation, and very little action. I guess we’re just waiting to see where the action comes.
QUESTION: Okay. And I mean, there’s also some –
MR. TONER: I mean, we’ve said before he needs to move immediately, he needs to address the situation, but again, you need to – it needs to be more than rhetoric.
QUESTION: Okay. And how about on the question of cooperation on nuclear matters? There have been some reports out that Syria’s ready to cooperate with IAEA investigations or whatever.
MR. TONER: And that’s true in the sense that there’s a letter that the Syrians have sent. But again, it is – we’re waiting to see what comes of it. After nearly three full years of Syrian obstructionism, we’re – we obviously would be hopeful that Syria would fully cooperate with IAEA investigations and provide all access to their – to sites such as Deir al-Zour. And again, this recent letter to Director General Amano notwithstanding, Syria’s record does not indicate that they are going to be cooperative. So again, I think I’m back in the same frame that I was with – talking about general – President Asad’s offer of general amnesty. We’ve seen the words, now we need to see action.
QUESTION: Is there – take these two things – taken together, do you – is there any concern in this building that, somehow, Syria might be playing for time, trying to divide members of the Security Council, muddying the waters about other things; how do you read these two offers?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve seen the – we’ve seen them do that to try to deflect attention – international attention on what’s going on in Syria. Certainly I have no way of confirming whether that’s true in this case. If they are serious, then, as I said, they need to follow up on both fronts, both with the IAEA and in terms of reaching out to political prisoners of general amnesty, that they need to follow these words up with true action.
QUESTION: What about referring Syria to the Security Council regarding their nuclear facilities?
MR. TONER: Oh, in terms of the nuclear? My understanding is that the IAEA Board of Governors needs to meet and will meet, I think, in the coming days. That would be the natural mechanism, and then they would refer to the Security Council. And we continue to consult with our international partners on next steps, but the next obvious step in that process is the Board of Governors needs to meet. And then --
QUESTION: But you will ask as – the U.S. will ask the IAEA to refer Syria to the Security Council?
MR. TONER: I think our views on this are pretty clear.
QUESTION: On Yemen, violence in the streets of Sana’a today. Anything new, any contacts from this building to the Yemeni Government?
MR. TONER: Nothing – I mean, we – our ambassador there remains engaged, obviously, with the Yemeni Government. We continue to urge President Saleh to accept the offer that the GCC has put before him as a way out of this current situation, this current crisis. Continue to see violence in the streets, as you said, in Sana’a today; elsewhere in Yemen, I think there was violence over the weekend in Ta’izz, and we condemn those indiscriminate attacks by Yemeni security forces. Again, this is a situation where there’s a path forward, and President Saleh just needs to live up to commitments he’s made to accept the GCC’s agreement and to move Yemen forward.
QUESTION: That means you’re asking him to leave power, to leave Yemen?
MR. TONER: He’s made the commitment to sign this agreement for a transition to take place and a transfer – a democratic transition, rather, to take place. He needs to simply, as I said, live up to the commitments that he’s said publicly he would do.
QUESTION: There were some reports over the weekend that an Islamist group had seized a small Yemeni city --
MR. TONER: Right. Zinjibar, I think.
QUESTION: -- yeah. And have you – a) have you confirmed those, and b) what do you make of that as a --
MR. TONER: Well, first off, we weren’t able to confirm. I mean, we still haven’t been able to make a clear determination what has actually happened there. Obviously it’s fairly limited to what kind of access we can have. Obviously it’s clear that al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula remains a major threat, both in Yemen and to the U.S. homeland, and we continue to view them as this very serious threat. And obviously, again, the AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula takes advantage of the kind of instability that we see going on in Yemen right now, and so it’s yet another reason why we need – Yemen needs to get on a path through this crisis and towards a political transition.
QUESTION: Aside from this particular incident, do we have evidence – what sort of concrete evidence do we have that AQAP is taking advantage of this situation?
MR. TONER: Well, I would point to the reports that they did in fact seize Zinjibar. We’ve seen – speaking more broadly, we’ve seen al-Qaida in its various forms feed on instability throughout the region.
QUESTION: But we don’t – can’t point to other attacks or --
MR. TONER: No, no. And Yemen, I mean – I think we’ve seen reports, I think, a few weeks ago, that they had seized an oil field that was yet – that still wasn’t confirmed. But --
QUESTION: Can you talk about this report that – about threats to one of your diplomats in Bahrain and his reassignment --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- or relocation?
MR. TONER: My understanding on this, Matt, is this is – you’re talking about Ludovic Hood
MR. TONER: -- who came back to the U.S. from Manama. He did just complete his tour in Manama and returned to Washington; he’s taken up a position here within the State Department. So he wasn’t recalled in his posting. As you know, our assignment cycle has already been set for, like, the last six months or so. That said, we are aware, as press reports have cited, that there were threats, accusations made against him on some websites, and obviously we take the safety of our diplomatic personnel very seriously. But in this case he was simply transferred back to Washington.
QUESTION: So it did – his coming back to D.C. had nothing to do with the --
MR. TONER: No.
MR. TONER: Yeah. No.
QUESTION: Are you investigating?
MR. TONER: It didn’t. It simply was his normal transfer. Sorry, am I not – no --
QUESTION: Well, no, I mean –
MR. TONER: We are – I guess I’m doing --
QUESTION: -- if you could say it in a full sentence: He was not transferred back to D.C. because of --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. I’ll give you the quote. No, he was not brought back here because of these accusations or allegations.
QUESTION: The reports of these allegations were on government-affiliated or associated websites and media there. Have you made any representations to the Bahrain Government to stop baselessly accusing your envoys there?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we have no way to confirm that they were actually made by the government or people within the Government of Bahrain. I’m aware that they were on these websites. But it’s unacceptable that any elements there would target an individual, a diplomat, for carrying out his duties. But beyond that, I’m not aware that it was raised --
QUESTION: Is the Bahrain foreign minister meeting with Steinberg today?
MR. TONER: He is, actually.
QUESTION: Is that going to be a subject of discussion?
MR. TONER: I don’t know what – they’re going to speak broadly about regional issues and then, obviously, very clearly they’re going to talk about the bilateral issues, including steps to ensure that civil rights and human rights are respected and that the government works to foster a constructive political change, but I can’t specifically say whether that’s going to be raised.
QUESTION: The king’s announcement today of full – without – talks without conditions, reform talks without conditions starting July 1st today, how do you see the timing on that?
MR. TONER: We view it as a positive step. Again, the President was clear in his speech that it’s impossible for Bahrain to have the kind of dialogue that it needs to have while members of the opposition still are in prison. It needs to take positive steps to address the legitimate aspirations of the people, and this would be a step in that direction.
QUESTION: Just to put a final point on this Hood incident, you’re saying that – I understand that his tour was coming to a close and he was coming home, but you’re saying he was not brought back early because of these incidents?
MR. TONER: My understanding is that he wasn’t.
QUESTION: You’re sure about that?
MR. TONER: As sure as – I said my understanding is that he was not brought back early.
QUESTION: My understanding is he was brought back several weeks early. I mean, we’re not disputing that his tour was coming --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- to an end, but --
MR. TONER: Right. My understanding is that it was not. While there were, obviously, concerns about his security – and again, we take the safety of our diplomats – and I don’t think we’re disputing that there were allegations or accusations, I guess, against him --
QUESTION: No, we’re not disputing that.
MR. TONER: -- and we view that as scurrilous. We condemn it. But as far as his transfer goes, I believe it was done just within the context of the summer transfer season.
QUESTION: Can I ask you –
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: You said that the king’s announcement was a positive step, but you said Asad’s announcement --
MR. TONER: Well, again, I would just – I would hold the same standard in the sense that we need to see action, but again, what we’re – what we want to see is an engagement by the Government of Bahrain to meet the demands of the Bahraini people.
QUESTION: So back to Hood, I’m just – you say there’s no way to confirm if those threats and accusations were made by the Bahraini Government. Are you asking them to take a look at that, if there’s no way for – you’re not going to investigate those?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve been clear publicly, as I just said, that we believe those are completely unfounded and it’s unacceptable. He’s transferred back now, so the matter’s closed.
QUESTION: But you have other – I mean, isn’t the Embassy as a whole kind of being the target of local anger? And you do have other diplomats at the Embassy, and presumably you’re going to have another human rights officer, right? So –
MR. TONER: Absolutely, because we take the monitoring of human rights there very seriously, as we do everywhere.
QUESTION: So I mean, even if you’re not going to ask the government to intervene in this particular case, I mean –
MR. TONER: I’m not, frankly, sure whether we’re going to raise our concerns or whether we’ve raised our concerns with the Bahraini Government. I’ll find out.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: There – over the weekend, there was the report of this 13-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured by the government, the body returned back to the family. I was wondering if you have any comment. Does this kind of increase your opinion that there needs to be a transition in Syria?
MR. TONER: Well, Elise, we are aware of that story, and it’s indeed horrifying and is another case of the ongoing human rights abuses that we’ve seen carried out by Syrian forces. We continue, obviously, to put pressure on Syria both to the UN as well as our own sanctions, but the – I’m sorry, the UN Human Rights Council, as well as our own targeted sanctions against Asad and his regime, for them to change their ways. I talked a little bit about some of the things that Asad had spoken to about a general amnesty. Again, it’s hard for us to comment on what those mean at this point until we see them followed up by concrete action. But certainly that case in particular is appalling and that we believe that Syria should be held accountable for these and other human rights abuses.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, he’s offering amnesty to people that have turned themselves in, but --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- there’s a lot of – thousands of protestors who haven’t. And if they’re resorting to torturing teenagers – I mean, do you think that this regime has any legitimacy whatsoever?
MR. TONER: I think that, as we’ve talked about before, that legitimacy is indeed fading and that they need to take steps. If they are going to indeed take concrete action, they need to do it now.
QUESTION: Well, you – I mean, you called for them to take steps, and the steps they’ve taken are to torture 13-year-old boys.
MR. TONER: I agree. This is –it’s appalling, human rights abuses and, as I’ve said, they’re going to be held accountable.
QUESTION: So I mean, what – you said that the legitimacy is fading. I mean, what legitimacy do they have left at this point?
MR. TONER: This is again – the onus should rightly be on Asad and his regime here that they have squandered their credibility with the Syrian people. They’ve talked about reform and have not delivered. And as you said, they’ve met legitimate protests – peaceful protests – with horrible human rights abuses. So they need to either take action or to let democratic transition take place. But the important thing here is that the onus should be on them.
QUESTION: Are you playing any role to influence the Chinese and the Russians so not to oppose --
MR. TONER: You’re talking about within the Security Council?
MR. TONER: Again, we were – I was clear the other day in saying that we support a resolution. We believe it’s a way to put increased pressure on Asad and his regime. But I’m not going to get into the work – into behind-the-scenes deliberations.
QUESTION: Yeah. Betty Huang, a bill has been introduced in the parliament – in the Iranian parliament that proposes sanctioning 26 former and present U.S. officials in violation of human rights, people like Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, General Petraeus, General Odierno, and others. Would you say, given Iran’s track record – and they’re saying that we will seek these people out throughout the world – would you consider this a threat to all Americans?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of the specific legislation. But Iran’s hypocrisy with regard to human rights seemingly knows no bounds, and this would be, I guess, further proof of that.
QUESTION: Is this – would you consider it a threat?
MR. TONER: I don’t know. I’ll have to look into the actual legislation and what, in fact, they’re saying. But the – it sounds ridiculous.
QUESTION: Today, I believe it’s the first year anniversary of the flotilla from last year. You said last week that you told Turkish Government – you got --
MR. TONER: We’ve been talking to the Turkish Government. I don’t know, told them, but we’ve been in consultation with the Turkish Government about this. We’ve shared our concerns.
QUESTION: The Turkish foreign minister over the weekend said that those who want us to stop flotilla, they think that Turkey’s not democracy. This is the quote. And he goes to say that Turkish Government has no influence on the NGOs.
MR. TONER: That may very well be the case. These are independently operating NGOs. But what I think our concern is we don’t want to see another situation arise where people are put at risk.
QUESTION: So are you planning to go and find these NGOs and convince them or --
MR. TONER: I’m not sure of whether we reached out directly to the NGOs. I can ask.
QUESTION: On Libya, I was just wondering if you had any readout on President Zuma’s trip?
MR. TONER: Oh, on Zuma? I – we don’t. I mean, we haven’t – gotten any readout directly from the South Africans. We’ve just seen press reports about Qadhafi talking about another ceasefire. But obviously, again, unsubstantiated, and we’ve seen this play before.
QUESTION: Thank you.