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Middle East Digest - June 2, 2011

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Washington, DC
June 2, 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 June 2, 2011

QUESTION: On Libya --

MR. TONER: Sure. I’m sorry, I’ll get to you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: This is about Eman al-Obeidi, the woman who was --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- raped in Libya. And she has said that, and her family has said that she was in Qatar and she was forcibly removed from her bed, taken by government aircraft back from Qatar to Benghazi against her wishes; the UNHCR has confirmed this. Have you been contacted in any way?

MR. TONER: We have. We’ve been monitoring the situation and are indeed very concerned about her safety, and we have even spoken to her in recent days. We’re aware that there is a plan to offer her protection, possibly to a third country, and we’re going to continue to work in the coming days with the appropriate international organizations to – first of all, to ensure that she’s safe, and secondly, to possibly get her out.

QUESTION: So you’re in direct touch with her then?

MR. TONER: We are.

QUESTION: At what level?

QUESTION: And what --

QUESTION: You said direct? Didn’t you say, we talked to her?

MR. TONER: We said we’ve spoken to her in recent days, yeah.


QUESTION: Since she’s been --

MR. TONER: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Since she’s been forcibly removed from --

MR. TONER: I think you said – I’m sorry. You --

QUESTION: No, no, I thought we said indirect and I just wanted to make sure.

QUESTION: Since she’s been removed from Qatar you’ve been in touch with her?

MR. TONER: That I’m not sure. I’d have to look.

QUESTION: I mean, the idea is that, allegedly, the Qatari Government physically took her out of Qatar and took – and sent her back to Benghazi against international refugee regulations.

MR. TONER: Again, this is obviously a very sensitive issue. I’ll just say that – I’ll repeat what I just said, which is that we are in touch with her, we’ve been in touch with her recently, we’re very much aware of her case, and we’re working with the appropriate international organizations, as I said, to make sure that she’s safe.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. At what level, again, was that contact?

MR. TONER: What level is the interaction?

QUESTION: Yeah. You said you’d been in touch with her.

MR. TONER: Well, I would say at a variety of levels.

QUESTION: Okay. And that – sorry, just real quick to follow. Have you talked to the Qataris about this now, since the allegations of it?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure. I was trying to find out before coming out here and didn’t – wasn’t able to confirm.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, do you have any statement on what the Qataris allegedly did?

MR. TONER: Again, I want to find out more about what they allegedly did before I would comment on it. What I think is most important is that we’re aware that she’s been returned to Benghazi, and we’re following her case very closely and we’re going to make every effort to ensure that she’s safe.

QUESTION: Are you worried that she was expelled?

MR. TONER: I think we’re concerned for her safety given what’s – all that’s happened to her, and we’re going to work to make sure that she’s – that she’s kept safe, first and foremost, and that she finds appropriate asylum.


QUESTION: No. Could we stay on Libya for a second?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Have you – do you have any update at all on the search or the quest for information about this guy Matthew VanDyke from Baltimore and the other Americans who are missing there?

MR. TONER: I don’t, Matt, except to say that we continue to follow a variety of leads and contacts and try to find out more information and appeal to the Libyan Government to release these individuals. They’ve done nothing. They should be released, and they’re simply caught up in this conflict.

QUESTION: You’re – you have some information that they are detained?

MR. TONER: I believe we – some of them are detained. We talked about these – the Americans who remain behind. But obviously, we had two released and who made it out to Tripoli a couple weeks ago, and that was in indeed good news.


MR. TONER: But we continue to follow that case. I’ll try to see if I can get an update for tomorrow.

QUESTION: And when you say you continue to follow the case, does that mean that you’re with – through the Hungarians?

MR. TONER: Through the Hungarians, through other contacts.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?


QUESTION: Could you elaborate on the Secretary’s statement regarding the nearing end of the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria?

MR. TONER: The near – I’m sorry, what did you say again?

QUESTION: That the legitimacy of the Bashar Asad regime in Syria –

MR. TONER: Wow, I think she was --

QUESTION: -- is nearing its end.

MR. TONER: Yeah. I mean, I think she was crystal clear, so I’m not sure what I can elaborate on. She said that – very clearly, and indeed the President has said as much, that if President Asad doesn’t want to be a part of the transition that’s currently underway, that he should get out of the way. And I think that the Secretary was stressing that more and more what we’ve seen on the ground in Syria indicates that he doesn’t want to be part of that.

QUESTION: Does that mean that we are likely to hear a statement, an official statement, calling on Asad to step aside?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to predict what we may or may not say in the coming days. All I can say right now is that we want President Asad to seize whatever opportunity remains for him to meaningfully enact reforms, to engage with the opposition, to release all political prisoners, to cease the violence against innocent civilians. But in a clear-eyed way, we see that that window of opportunity is closing.

QUESTION: Is it closing? I mean --

QUESTION: So you still feel that – you still feel that he still has opportunities to seize, to reform, and move forward into a transition?

MR. TONER: I think there’s always – always the opportunity remains. But again, we’ve seen today that the Syrian opposition is – obviously has been meeting the last couple days in Turkey. They’ve obviously seen no response from their government in a meaningful way to engage with the Syrian people’s demands. So you’re seeing a process moving forward in Syria that’s increasingly isolating the Asad regime and Asad himself.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. reached out --

QUESTION: To what extent --

QUESTION: -- to the opposition in any way?

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. reached out to the Syrian opposition in any way?

MR. TONER: We’ve had contacts with the opposition --

QUESTION: Can you characterize them?

MR. TONER: -- and with the civil – I don’t want to get into it beyond that because it’s obviously an extremely sensitive situation.

Yeah. Go ahead, Kim.

QUESTION: To what extent is your position on Syria dictated by this lack of international unity on dealing with Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, look, again, the Secretary spoke a little bit about this earlier today. We are trying to build pressure on Asad’s regime. We’ve been very outspoken about the abuses going on there. We’ve enacted increasingly stringent sanctions against Asad’s regime and indeed President Asad. We’ve worked with the EU effectively. They’ve ramped up their sanctions. We’ve brought it to the UN Security Council. We brought it to the UN Human Rights Commission. We’re trying to ratchet up the pressure. That’s been our strategy going forward.

You look like you have a question.

QUESTION: Well, do you want to finish?

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Kim.

QUESTION: Yeah. I want to go back to the statement that the Secretary made about the legitimacy being, if not gone, nearly run out. At what point does it run out?

MR. TONER: Again, I think that’s something for the Syrian people to decide.

QUESTION: Well, but you can take a position, though, as to whether – as you have with President Mubarak, with President Saleh, with Muammar Qadhafi, you’ve explicitly said that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead. And he’s answered --

MR. TONER: I think we’ve said that about Muammar Qadhafi, but I think Matt actually corrected me last time when I agreed to this. I’m not sure what we – I believe what we said about Mubarak was that he should step aside so that a democratic transition could take place.

QUESTION: Well, isn’t that kind of saying that he --

MR. TONER: Again, I mean, we’re --

QUESTION: -- shouldn’t be leading the country anymore?

MR. TONER: We’ve said that about Yemen and we’re saying that about Asad as well. If he doesn’t want to lead this effort, then allow that effort to move forward.

QUESTION: But you – I mean, you’re saying that he’s not making reforms and he’s not leading the effort. And then you’re saying if he’s not leading the effort, then he should go. But why is that not he should go? I mean, he’s answered your calls. He’s answered your calls for ending the violence, for all of the – stopping the brutality of the people, for making reform. He’s answered these calls with what even U.S. congressmen are calling crimes against humanity that should be referred to the ICC. So why do you keep --

MR. TONER: I agree --

QUESTION: Why do you keep saying that the window is closing? I mean, at what point, as Kim said, is it closed?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s up to the Syrian people to decide when he’s lost legitimacy. And I think given what actions they’ve taken over the past weeks only increases their isolation and makes it more and more impossible for them to take the kind of meaningful reform that would in any way end this crisis.

QUESTION: If it’s up to the Syrian people to decide when President Asad is no longer a legitimate ruler, do you therefore suggest that the people who are on the streets of Damascus don’t represent a majority of the Syrians? Are they just a minority protesting against the government?

MR. TONER: No. I mean, I think we’re looking for – look, again, this is a – the onus on this should be on the Syrian Government. The United States is working hard with its international partners to put the kind of pressure that will encourage or force Asad and his government to make the kind of reforms, to cease the violence, to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the opposition. So far, we haven’t seen any of that. We’re going to continue to look at options moving forward on how we can up that pressure on him. We’re trying to build international pressure on him. The Secretary spoke to this this morning. But what’s happening in Syria is obviously very, very, very concerning to us.

QUESTION: But your reluctance – sorry – your reluctance --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- to call on President Asad to go in any sort of form, whether saying those words or in other ways asking him to step aside for the democratic transition to move forward --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- that reluctance is really dictated by the fact that the international community isn’t united, that the Arab League isn’t saying it is time for Asad to go. Your position would be different if the Arab League suddenly said, “It’s time for Asad to go.”

MR. TONER: Well, again, all I can say is where we’re at with our policy right now. I’m not going to predict where we might be a day or two or three from now. Where we’re at right now is we’re trying to build that international pressure on Asad. We’re trying to make the choice even clearer to him that he needs to either be part of the reform or to step aside and allow that reform process to take place.

QUESTION: Do you agree with the Human Rights Watch Report that these abuses constitute crimes against humanity?

MR. TONER: I think they need to be clearly investigated. From all the allegations that we’ve seen, they clearly represent egregious human rights abuses, and I think that we’ve been clear that all these people need to be held accountable to --

QUESTION: Would you support a referral to the ICC?

MR. TONER: Well, we referred it to the – well, we had the UN Human Rights Commission speak on it, but I think if merited, yes.

QUESTION: Mark, the opposition just formed an advisory council of 31 members. Are you comfortable that these members would be actually representative of the Syrian people? Would you reach out to them as representatives?

MR. TONER: Again, I don't want to talk too much about our contacts with the Syrian opposition, but clearly they’re in the formative stages. And as we – as I’ve said earlier, it just indicates that they’re moving on with or without Asad, with our without the government’s support or, as I said, any effort by the government to engage with them. And as they form, clearly, we’ll evaluate them and have discussions with them.

QUESTION: Mark, can I --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that you’re looking for as an expression of the Syrian people’s belief that Asad is no longer legitimate, the formation of --

MR. TONER: The formation of some opposition?

QUESTION: -- an opposition council.

MR. TONER: I think it speaks volumes about the fact that they believe that they no longer have a credible form of government.

QUESTION: And once the Syrian people do deliver an expression that you believe is a sign that they no longer believe Asad is legitimate, are you – is the U.S. prepared to say that he has lost his legitimacy?

MR. TONER: Again, I don't want to predict where we’re going to be in the near term. I just think where we’re at today is that we’ve been very clear in saying that if he’s not going to be a part – an agent of change – if he’s not going to be an agent of reform, then he needs to allow that reform to take place.

QUESTION: But do you really believe he can do that, Mark? Do you – I mean, at this point are there any doubts that he’s not going to do that?

MR. TONER: I completely agree with you, Elise, that we’ve seen no indications. We’ve seen an offer of amnesty that didn’t go far enough, and we continue to call on him to do more to show it. But I would agree with you in that this window, this opportunity, is close to evaporating.

QUESTION: Did you see The Washington Post editorial today --

MR. TONER: We did.

QUESTION: -- which said that anybody that’s seen that Human Rights Report could not claim with a straight face that there’s any hope left that this regime will take any meaningful steps. And you say that you’ve – yourself and the Secretary have said that you’ve reviewed this report and these charges of crimes against humanity. So I just don’t understand why you keep expressing the hope that the regime is going to take formidable steps.

MR. TONER: Look, we’re not – I don't think there’s any way you could accuse us of being Pollyannaish about --


MR. TONER: No. Okay. Granted, I’m putting words in your mouth, but I’m just saying that I don't think we’re optimistic. And indeed, our hope that they would take meaningful steps is, as I said, evaporating. What we’re trying to do is to work on an international scale. We’ve done it unilaterally, we’ve worked with the EU, we’re trying to put pressure on a regime – rather, on Asad’s regime to either help or step aside and get out of the way.

QUESTION: Do you – does the United States believe that Russia and China, which have thus far refused to sign on to the European proposal to – simply to criticize, not even to sanction, the Asad regime for its crackdown – does the U.S. Government believe they’re on the wrong side of history?

MR. TONER: I think we would appeal to those who have yet to join in the international condemnation of Asad’s regime, that they need to consider what he’s doing, what actions he’s carrying out against his own people, and the long-term consequences of that.

QUESTION: What was the Secretary referring to when she talked about other members of the UN Security Council?

MR. TONER: I think she’s talking –

QUESTION: Was that who she was talking about, Russia and China?

MR. TONER: I think she’s saying – look, I’m not going to parse the Secretary’s words. She said what she said, which is that these people are on the wrong side of history.

QUESTION: What do you make of the Arab League credibility by not taking a moral stand on what’s happening in Syria?

MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask the Arab League that question, but we’re trying to build pressure against Asad. We’re working with a variety of partners. We’re trying to get more people to – around the globe to wake up to this – the terrible events happening in Syria.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the conversations between the U.S. and the Arab League about Syria?

MR. TONER: I – frankly, I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t been privy to those conversations. But we’ve – the Arab League has obviously been very forward in its condemnation of what’s going on in Libya, and we would hope that they would apply that same set of standards to other places.

QUESTION: Have you gotten any indication that they’ve been reluctant to come down on Asad?

MR. TONER: No. I mean, again, I haven’t been privy to those conversations, but certainly they’re well aware of what’s going on in Syria.


QUESTION: But they’re not –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: I just – I think I just said that. They’re well aware of what’s going on in Syria.

QUESTION: You keep saying that you’re asking President Bashar al-Asad to do more. If there’s any time table, any criteria for this demand?

MR. TONER: Again, our criteria is based on looking at what’s happening in Syria and trying to – obviously, calling on publicly for them to cease their violence, free all political prisoners, and engage in meaningful reform. To this date, we’ve seen very little, if nothing, in that regard. So as I said, we’re continuing to ratchet up the pressure in a variety of international fora and as well as unilaterally to make the choice even clearer. And that’s where we’re focused right now. I mean, (inaudible ) anything better than that.

QUESTION: Those are the criteria of the international community or the demands of opposition group? Who is determining the criteria in terms of reforms in Syria that –

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, there’s – there are some – I think I’ve just outlined some really basic criteria, which are cease violence against –

QUESTION: Then because after the declaration of –

MR. TONER: Carrying out violent attacks and rounding up innocent young men and freeing political prisoners – I mean, those are all relatively – those are all, according to international human rights standards.

QUESTION: I’m asking this question because after the general amnesty that the Syrian Government has declared, the opposition group in Turkey refused this kind of amnesty.

MR. TONER: Because it was a half measure.


QUESTION: Another subject?

QUESTION: One last thing. When and if there is a public statement that both clearly states that the president of Syria is no longer legitimate, would that automatically mean that diplomatic relations does not exist with the regime. Or would you –

MR. TONER: I wouldn’t – look, it’s so speculative, I’m not going to say when and if we may declare such a thing. Again, our focus – we have a diplomatic mission in –

QUESTION: Protocol-wise.

MR. TONER: I don’t even want to go there, because where we’re at right now is that we maintain diplomatic relations with Syria. We think it’s very important that their ambassador remain in Damascus. He’s trying to deliver our very candid message to the Syrian Government, and he also has contacts within the Syrian community that are important.

QUESTION: What is your contact with the ambassador here, Imad Moustapha?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’m not aware of what recent contacts we’ve had with him. I can get more information for you.

QUESTION: A new subject?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, during her recent visit to Islamabad, handed a list of terrorists to them. Has Pakistan replied to that?

MR. TONER: I think I’d just say that the Secretary had very constructive meetings while she was in Pakistan, and there was broad agreement that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan has yielded results in the past and that it’s in both our interests to work even more diligently in the future.

QUESTION: Is the name of (inaudible) Kashmiri in that list? If it is –

MR. TONER: I don’t know what list you’re referring to, so –

QUESTION: The Secretary – so you cannot even confirm that the list –

MR. TONER: I’m not going to confirm there’s some list, no.

QUESTION: Yesterday, the Secretary said that you were still trying to get President Saleh to step down from power. Could you talk about what your latest efforts are to get him out of power, now that he hasn’t signed the agreement and the GCC has abandoned its efforts?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: And also, I mean, as the violence increases in Yemen, it’s growing increasingly like a civil war. What is your concern for U.S. personnel on the ground and --

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, the fact that we went to ordered departure – ordered departure, is that right? Yeah. – ordered departure, just a little over a week ago, I think, indicates that our level of concern is very high.

QUESTION: Is that ordered departure just for families and non-essentials or everybody?

MR. TONER: No, it – well, I mean, as you know this is – it’s ordered departure for embassy personnel. At the same time --

QUESTION: Oh, I thought it was just families.

MR. TONER: No, no. But then – and then we moved – we reduce our footprint, if you will, to essential, so-called essential personnel. But at the same time, we also advise any U.S. citizens there to leave, and we certainly – and then we ask anybody who’s intending to travel to Yemen to defer their travel.

You’re right. It’s a very concerning situation. Violence is persistent over the past week or so, ever since President Saleh once again backed away from the table and decided not to sign what we believe was a very valid GCC agreement that really would chart a way forward. In that time, our ambassador there has consistently been in touch with the Yemeni Government. And again, our efforts are trying to convince President Saleh that this agreement is the best way forward, it’s the way – it puts – it charts a path, if you will, for Yemen to move out of this period of crisis and to move towards a democratic transition.

QUESTION: Are there any – are you considering any punitive measures against the government if he does not do that? Considering you have so much crucial cooperation with them, I would think it’s pretty dicey.

MR. TONER: Well, yes, although we’ve said that our counterterrorism, which I think is what you’re referring to – our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen doesn’t – isn’t hinged on one particular individual. It goes beyond that. I think we’re looking at a variety of options, but to this – at this point, we still are convinced that the GCC proposal is a good one and that he should sign it.

QUESTION: Well, but I mean, why are the two mutually exclusive? I mean, you think it’s a good proposal, and he should sign it, but he’s not. So what are the consequences for him not doing so?

MR. TONER: Well, I – you’re right in the sense that I think as this wears on, we need to look at ways to convince him. But at this point, we continue to work closely with the Yemeni Government in trying to urge that he sign it. He has committed to signing this agreement, and again, we urge him to sign it.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, what? The Hamas --

QUESTION: Do you have – Hamas and Fatah, the negotiation in Turkey?

MR. TONER: No. I haven’t heard updates on that, but our position’s been clear about the reconciliation.

QUESTION: Do you have any expectations about this (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Our expectations are that if Hamas wants to play a meaningful role in the political process, they need to abide by the Quartet principles.

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