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 8, 2011
MR. TONER: That’s all I really have for the top, so I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: Can we start with Syria? As you are no doubt aware, France and Britain are now again pushing for a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. Does the U.S. Government support their draft? And do you think, given Secretary Clinton’s comments last week about how those who oppose this need to sort of look at their consciences, do you think that you should proceed to a vote and essentially dare the Russians to – or the Chinese to veto it?
MR. TONER: Well, Arshad, as you said and noted in your question, we do support pursuing a UN Security Council resolution regarding the ongoing situation in Syria, and we’re advocating and trying to convince others on the council to do the same. We believe that such a resolution will bring added pressure on Asad’s regime and advance the international community’s efforts to end the brutal repression on the Syrian people.
We talked a little bit – as you said, the Secretary spoke to this last week in one of her press availabilities and stressed that the need right now to build and cement this international pressure, to make clear to President Asad and his regime that the violence must end and that they must take actions to address the aspirations of the Syrian people. We’re going to continue to work within the Security Council as we move towards a vote.
QUESTION: So for now, do you think now is not the time to just put it to a vote and see whether the Russians are going to veto it?
MR. TONER: Well again, I don’t necessarily want to reveal too much of how we’re going to approach this going forward. I think I’ve been pretty clear on where we stand on the issue. The Secretary, as you said, was very clear on the need for others to recognize that this is an important moment in history and to – and act accordingly.
QUESTION: And given – one other one. Given that the resolution by all accounts does not contain sanctions, why is this likely to change the regime’s behavior?
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right in that this is, I believe, a statement about ongoing human rights abuses within Syria. It’s just – it may or may not, Arshad, to be honest. What it will do is add to the mounting international condemnation and – of what’s been going on in Syria and help build a broader coalition, if you will, towards ending the violence and pressuring Asad to make the right decisions.
QUESTION: Have you noted any movement in recent days from specifically Russia or any of the other countries that were deemed to be not yet on the right side of history?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to get too much into the mechanics of this. I’d refer you to our mission at the UN for more details, but again, I don’t think they’re going to talk too much process at this point. Where we’ve been clear is where we stand. We’ve been clear that we’re trying to build that pressure, build that international community support for a tougher message to Asad.
QUESTION: Can I just ask –
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- about the second part of the Syria approach with the UN? Do you have plans now to – there’s a draft circulating in Vienna, I understand. Do you have plans now to refer the noncompliance with the IAEA to the Security Council for action?
MR. TONER: We did, yesterday in Vienna, introduce a draft resolution which is co-sponsored, I believe, by 14 other countries, finding Syria in noncompliance with its IAEA safeguard obligations and reporting the matter to the UN Security Council resolution – UN Security Council, rather.
QUESTION: Are these --
QUESTION: What would you hope that they would accomplish at the Security Council on this?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we think it’s a – this is – I talked a little bit about this last week. We – it’s a necessary step, it’s an appropriate step, it’s one step in – with the IAEA convening this week, to refer to the Security Council. It is, I think, a recognition on our part that we’ve seen very little, if nothing at all, of an attempt by Syria to address the international community’s concerns. The IAEA’s latest report only confirmed those concerns and lack of serious compliance with its international nuclear obligations. And it’s – we believe it’s a matter of sufficient importance that the UN Security Council address it.
QUESTION: Are these discrete? Is it fair to say that these are discrete matters, the push for resolution in the Security Council by Britain and France with your support on human rights abuses in Syria and the U.S. action yesterday at the IAEA? Or are these part of a sort of concerted effort to bring pressure to bear on Syria?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question, Arshad. I think what it just shows is that, frankly, Syria’s failing in its – to meet its international obligations on the nuclear front concurrently with its failure to abide by any of its international obligations – human rights obligations – in dealing with legitimate protestors within its own country. It just speaks, I think, to the Asad regime’s continued ability to snub the rest of the world and carry out abuses against its own people and to simply disregard the international community’s very real concerns about its nuclear program. I would – it’s concerted only in that we’ve got two – we’ve got problems with Syria on two fronts.
QUESTION: Can you – just if we can stay with Syria on the --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- violence on the ground. I imagine you’ve seen the reports that refugees are now fleeing parts of Syria and heading into Turkey because of their fears of an imminent Syrian military attack on them. The Turks say – you are presumably also aware – said that they will not turn them back, that they will accept them. Two things: One, does the U.S. Government itself have any independent corroboration of the numbers of police and other security forces said to have been killed --
MR. TONER: Killed in the attack.
QUESTION: Yeah. Or do you still have no idea?
MR. TONER: We’re still looking into it is the latest information I have on that. We’ve been unable to corroborate those figures.
QUESTION: Okay. And then secondly, do you believe that the Syrian Government is indeed now preparing to bring the weight of its – the full weight of its military against civilians in that part of the country?
MR. TONER: Arshad, we’ve – unfortunately, we’ve no way to really confirm your – what your question raised. But we’ve only seen an escalation in violence over the last several weeks. We’ve seen the Syrian authorities target civilians, young men and boys in particular, in several regions of the country. So to say that we’re concerned is an understatement frankly, and to say that we’re not concerned that it could get worse and such – as you said, an escalation, as you posed, could occur, is not outside the realm of possibility.
QUESTION: If – to say that you were concerned is an understatement, but you yourself said that – when I asked why you thought a UN resolution without any sanctions was likely to change this --
MR. TONER: But --
QUESTION: Let me finish – was likely to change the Syrian behavior, you said it may or may not. So if it’s an understatement that you’re concerned, why is it that a sort of limp UN resolution is the best you can come up with here?
MR. TONER: I don’t want to in any way characterize --
QUESTION: Or toothless or absent sanctions?
MR. TONER: – a resolution that’s – frankly, that hasn’t even been voted on yet is in any way toothless or limp. And your point about the sanctions is – we have sanctions in place against Syria. We’ve targeted Asad. Those have been backed up by EU sanctions as well. So we’re going the sanctions route. We’re trying to work within the UN to bring more international pressure to bear on Asad. So to pick any one of these in isolation, any one of these efforts in isolation, is unfair. It’s part of a broader effort, I think, to build the pressure on Asad and to make it very clear to them – to him and his regime that they need to stop the violence and to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people in a meaningful way and reform. And until we see that, we’re going to keep adding pressure.
QUESTION: Why is it that the situation in Syria is different from that in Libya two months ago? Is it simply that you don’t have good intelligence on what’s happening that is forcing people to pour across the border?
MR. TONER: No. Again, we’ve talked a lot about that you can’t compare what’s happening in Libya to Syria. It’s just not that neat a comparison, if you will, or that simple or easy a comparison.
QUESTION: So what makes Syria unique then?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that what we had originally seen in Syria was an effort by – the Syrian people began protests, carrying out protests, voicing frustration, asking the government to reform. President Asad initially said a lot of things about reform. We said at the time we want to see that backed up by action. What we saw was completely different. We saw Syrian authorities crack down on protestors, seeks to root out innocent civilians, and carry out, frankly, a fairly brutal campaign against the people of Syria. And how we’ve responded – and again, the Secretary spoke to this last week – and how we continue to respond is both unilaterally and multilaterally.
Unilaterally, we’ve issued sanctions against Asad. We began with who we believe were the primary actors who were carrying out these human rights abuses. We’ve now escalated it to Asad. We’re looking at other measures. We’re continuing to turn up the heat as best we can, using the tools that are available. We’re also putting pressure on – via the UN. And I just spoke to Arshad – it’s tempting to look at these in isolation, but what you really should do is look at them in concert as part of an overall effort to get – to bring international attention and pressure to bear on Asad.
QUESTION: Well, I --
MR. TONER: And so what’s happening in Libya, obviously we continue to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the civilian population. At the same time, with Qadhafi, we’re continuing again to ratchet up the political pressure on him, political and economic pressure on him so that he, too, realizes that he needs to allow for that political – that democratic transformation to take place, transition to take place.
QUESTION: Well, given that the U.S. does have Ambassador Ford there in Damascus. And you’ve said before that it’s been very difficult for him to get an audience with those --
MR. TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: How effective is it then to say that the U.S. is trying to use political pressure, diplomatic pressure, if the ambassador can’t even get an audience with his counterparts in the Syrian Government?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: I mean, basically it seems as if he’s talking to a brick wall.
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, first of all, it’s important that he remain there as – frankly, as the voice of the American Government. The fact that he’s been unable to meet with senior Syrian officials, frankly, I think shows that some of the actions we’ve taken have begun to bite, have gotten their attention. And so his presence there, I think, doesn’t just include conversations or delivering, frankly – or rather our message to the Syrian Government. It also includes outreach to the Syrian opposition, to Syrian activists, to the human rights community, and so it’s important, too, that we have that kind of outreach as we – as Syria heads into a transition period.
QUESTION: Do you support the opposition in Syria, and how?
MR. TONER: Again, I think we support a democratic process, transition, if you will, in Syria that leads to greater freedom for the Syrian people. It’s up to them, really, to decide who represents them. That’s got to be part of the – part of this process that we talk about. They’ve got to decide and come together on a process and choose their own leadership.
QUESTION: Did you reach a conclusion if Asad lost his legitimacy or not yet?
MR. TONER: Look, I think we continue to be very alarmed by what we’ve seen in Syria. We continue to believe that Asad has shown little or no effort to reform, to meet and address the concerns that are raised by the Syrian people. Rather, he’s just carried out a brutal crackdown on them. This will obviously be a topic on the margins of the Secretary’s meeting – excuse me – the Secretary’s meetings in the UAE. She’s there principally to talk Libya, but I imagine she’ll also have an opportunity in the – in her meetings to talk about Syria and the way forward.
QUESTION: Is she trying to rally some Arab support then?
MR. TONER: I think that’s fair to say. I mean, I think she’s trying to use this as an opportunity to talk about Syria and the way forward. Yes.
QUESTION: Do you think that – are you discerning any greater willingness? I mean, one of the points the Secretary has made repeatedly in public was that there was Arab consensus as manifested by the Arab League vote in favor of the action in Syria. And she’s pointed out – pointedly can speak to this --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, rewind. Just --
QUESTION: One thing that the Secretary has publicly pointed out when asked this question about Libya and Syria is that she – well, how the circumstances are different. She’s pointed out that there was Arab support for the action in Libya as manifested in the Arab League vote. Have you discerned – and there has not appear to have been such from the Arabs. Have you discerned any evolution in the Arab stance toward the possibility of more muscular action over Syria?
MR. TONER: Again, I think those are conversations that we continue to have. As the Secretary said last week, we’re going to continue to work with our partners both in Europe and in the region to build more international pressure to be brought to bear in Syria.
QUESTION: Mark, do you consider the civilians in Syria threatened by the regime and its forces or not?
MR. TONER: I see where you’re going with this Michel, but --
QUESTION: I’m not going anywhere.
MR. TONER: -- but obviously, when innocent civilians are being targeted by the authorities we would view that as a threat, yes.
QUESTION: Do you have a readout of the ambassador’s meeting with Yemen’s acting president?
MR. TONER: I don’t. Let me finish with Syria, and then we’ll go to Yemen.
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: If they are threatened, why don’t you protect them, as you did in Libya?
MR. TONER: Well, again – and you’ve completed where I thought you were going to go with it again. (Laughter.) Look, Michel, I’ve tried to explain where we’re going in Syria, what we’re trying to do there. These are not – there’s not a one-size-fits-all strategic approach to these situations. We acted in Libya to prevent what we thought – what we believed and, in fact, what looked to be an impending humanitarian catastrophe. And to date, those efforts have been successful. And in Syria, we’re working to build international pressure on Asad. We’ve taken out – we’ve taken sanctions against him and his regime, the EU has done the same, we’re working with the UN Security Council, we’ve brought it to the Human Rights Commission, we’re continuing to build pressure against him. These are unique situations, unique cases, but what I think is important is that we’re struggling and working hard to promote human rights and to make Asad’s regime aware that they need to reform or, at the very least, get out of the way so that a transition could take place.
QUESTION: Do you find the last – the status quo right now in the international community regarding Syria, is that acceptable, the level of pressure and the level of consensus, or is – does there need to be more?
MR. TONER: No, I think we’ve said that we’re trying to build pressure. I mean, that’s clearly what we’re – where we’re at right now.
QUESTION: So would the failure to get a Security Council resolution condemning the human rights –
MR. TONER: I’m not going to predict the outcome. I think this is something –
QUESTION: Well, regardless –
MR. TONER: -- that’s still being worked in New York. But you’re asking me to speculate on what may or may not –
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to – I didn’t finish my question.
MR. TONER: I’m sorry – okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: If the level right now is not good enough and it doesn’t improve, is that a sign of a failure on that level?
MR. TONER: I just would say that we have stated clearly that we’re going to continue to work in the multilateral settings to build pressure on Asad. We believe that’s the best way forward. And as I said, the Secretary is going to take advantage of her Contact Group meetings to discuss Syria as well as Yemen, Bahrain, and other regional subjects, and we believe that’s the most effective way to bring pressure to bear on Asad. But I’m not going to predict next steps, and let’s just wait and see how the vote might go in the UN Security Council.
QUESTION: Right now, what is – what do you think Asad hears from the international community as a whole? Does he hear a voice in unison saying, “What’s going on is unacceptable”? Or is hearing something that sounds like some people don’t like it, some people don’t care?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. You’re going to have to ask Asad himself, I think, to determine the answer to that. What we hope to change in that equation, if you will, is that he hears a consistent – a more consistent, more coherent, increasingly more coherent message from the international community that we won’t stand for this.
QUESTION: Are you talking to the Russians about Syria?
MR. TONER: Yes. I mean, certainly.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary had any calls with Foreign Minister Lavrov in recent days?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that she’s had any calls in the recent – in the past several days, no.
QUESTION: Mark –
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: When you were talking –
MR. TONER: Actually, are we switching from Syria or are we still on Syria.
QUESTION: No, Syria. But first I have to go to Libya. When the – when it was still very – when the opposition in Libya had just started, and even up to now, you’re saying the U.S. is saying that it –
MR. TONER: Wait. I’m sorry. Are we in Libya or are we in – I apologize.
QUESTION: Well, I’m going to get to Syria. Up to now you were saying that –
MR. TONER: Oh, it’s a Libya question ending in Syria.
QUESTION: -- the U.S. was saying that it doesn’t know the opposition in Libya, and it was trying to get to know it to finally maybe recognize it – officially recognize it. Now, is that the same situation with Syria and the Syrian oppositions? What do you know about the opposition in Syria? Is that why you haven’t been more forceful on Asad?
MR. TONER: I mean, no, in the sense that we believe we have been forthright in condemning human rights abuses that we’ve seen carried out in Syria. But I think part of the work that our embassies do overseas in these kinds of situations is to get a better understanding of all the forces at play in a given country. And I think whether it be in Libya, which is clearly undergoing a monumental transition, and in Syria that’s a little bit further behind, but also trying to forge a way to a more democratic future, it’s – part of what we do is to reach out to all members of the society to get a better understanding of the forces at play in a given country, including the opposition and civil society.
QUESTION: You had an embassy in Libya, but you still had to get to know the opposition, whereas the Embassy in Syria is fairly new.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: So you should have had more information about the Libyan opposition than the Syrians.
MR. TONER: Again, I – it’s – I mean, it’s not that we simply get to a certain point, check a box, and say, “We’re good to go.” It’s – this is an evolving process. We’ve been working quite closely now for some time with the TNC. We have a Transitional National Council in Libya. We’ve got a representative in Benghazi who has frequent contact with them as well as with other members of the Libyan opposition. And again, it doesn’t – whether we recognize the opposition there or not doesn’t reflect on the fact that we continue to work to support the opposition in its efforts to protect themselves against Qadhafi’s forces.
QUESTION: Can we move onto Yemen?
MR. TONER: Sure. Let’s do Yemen.
QUESTION: Are we going to come back to Libya though at some point?
MR. TONER: We can go back to Libya.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. TONER: We can do Libya now, we can go to Yemen.
QUESTION: I’m kind of – I’m trying to get a sense for really – so the ambassador met with the acting president, correct?
MR. TONER: He did.
QUESTION: So --
MR. TONER: I believe that was --
MR. TONER: -- the last – yeah. I want to say Monday-ish. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. I’m just trying to get a feel for – I mean, were U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts discussed? Or was it more of a discussion based on, are you going to begin a democratic transition now, are you holding the fort? Or --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- kind of characterize the conversations for us.
MR. TONER: I mean, I’m hesitant --
QUESTION: Because there’s a lot at stake here.
MR. TONER: I mean – no, I understand there’s – there is an enormous amount at stake in Yemen, obviously. And the ambassador would certainly raise our concern about the level of violence over the last week or two, when – after President Saleh backed away from signing the GCC – the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement. I think we’ve had a consistent message both publicly and privately with regard to Yemen, which is that they need to – and now with Saleh’s departure for Saudi Arabia where he continues to receive medical treatment, there’s – this isn’t a time for inaction. There is a government that remains in place there, and they need to seize the moment and move forward.
QUESTION: Well, did they indicate that they were willing to do that?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve seen some – yeah. I mean, we’ve seen – we think – we’re encouraged by what we’ve heard from the acting president in that regard. Yes.
QUESTION: And what about in terms of counterterrorism efforts?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure, frankly, whether counterterrorism was brought up. Obviously, our – as we’ve said repeatedly, our counterterrorism concerns remain, they go beyond one individual – our counterterrorism cooperation goes beyond one individual with the Yemeni Government. And so we continue to work to address those concerns.
QUESTION: So the cooperation could be extended to dealing with the acting president --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- until or if --
MR. TONER: Yes.
In the back.
MR. TONER: Or do you want to go to -- we can go to the back there. Let’s do Libya and then we’ll go – sorry.
QUESTION: I know you’ve done it before, but just can you talk about the Contact Group again?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: What it will go over, how it will address, one, the intensified bombing in the recent days, and the continued attacks, including just recently on Misrata, again with civilians dying.
MR. TONER: Well, again, this is the third Contact Group meeting, in Abu Dhabi this time. The first was in, I think, Doha, then in Rome. And every time we meet, we believe we’ve seen increasing international pressure, and we believe that momentum is building for a change in Libya. We’ve in recent weeks seen, as you said, an intensified bombing campaign by NATO in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. At the same time, we’ve seen some indication of cracks within Qadhafi’s regime, some defections. And we’ve seen continued solidarity, if you will, in the international community in terms of making the choice very clear for Qadhafi that he needs to step aside and allow for a democratic transition to take place.
Clearly, they’re going to talk about adding – ways to add or sustain the political pressure on Qadhafi, but at the same time address very real concerns that we have that the Transitional National Council has the kind of financial wherewithal to stay afloat and to keep functioning in this interim period.
QUESTION: Does the current level of military activity represent kind of as far as it can go? I mean, the bombs are now hitting his compound.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: How much further can the military pressure him?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m always – I’m really – I’m always hesitant to delve into the operational aspects of this NATO-led operation, just because your – those questions are really better directed to our folks in the – to the command and control.
QUESTION: But the mandate imposes some limitations, right?
MR. TONER: Right. I think what it reflects in some ways, though, is the fact that we’ve seen Qadhafi’s forces change or adapt to airstrikes, to continue to carry out attacks against both the opposition as well as civilians. And so what we’ve said all along, what NATO has said all along, is that they’re going to continue to strike command and control centers of the Libyan military to reduce or degrade their capabilities, as well as find ways to – better ways to repulse Libyan ground forces and keep them from attacking civilians. We have seen an intensification, absolutely.
QUESTION: And I’ll just ask one last question.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Are you in talks with other governments right now about them adding more military-political commitments to this mission?
MR. TONER: I think, yeah, we’re always talking about ways that we can intensify pressure on Qadhafi.
MR. TONER: Oh, Afghanistan. Sure.
MR. TONER: Did we – actually, can I go just in the back, because I --
QUESTION: Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff released a report overnight about the spending in Afghanistan on programs through the State Department and USAID in particular, and sort of made it a bit awkward for Ambassador Crocker at his hearing today. Beyond USAID’s comments that it’s trying to overhaul the way that it disburses money and tries to build capacity within Afghanistan, what more can the State Department say about some very profound concerns that senators have about what’s been going on there, especially at a time when they’re looking at deciding do we actually approve a $3.2 apportionment for Afghanistan in the coming fiscal year?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a very long question, (inaudible). (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I try.
MR. TONER: With a lot of elements to it, and I’ll try as best I can to address most or all of them.
Ambassador Crocker, I don’t think, was at all uncomfortable in his confirmation hearing. And as I think he said, if confirmed he’ll look at these issues more closely and he takes the issues raised in the report very seriously and also cited his concerns about the corrosive effect of corruption and said he would also seek to address that if confirmed.
Also just the – Deputy Secretary Nides as well as our USAID Administrator Shah were given the opportunity to review the report in advance. And my understanding is that they did respond in the form of a letter to the committee. And I did want to, before coming down – we’re trying to see if we can make those letters available to you all because they would constitute really a detailed response to some of the concerns raised by the report.
But speaking more broadly, we welcome but do not endorse all of the conclusions in the report. We believe that the presumption implied by the Washington Post article that our assistance has contributed little and that Afghanistan has made no progress is, frankly, incorrect. We believe Afghanistan’s made major progress. As President Obama said earlier this week, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, we’ve trained and continue to train Afghan forces, and we’re preparing to, we believe, turn a corner in our efforts. Clearly, civilian assistance represents only a small percentage of the overall costs of our mission in Afghanistan, but it’s an essential component of the national security strategy in Afghanistan. And as the report recognizes, despite the many operational challenges, we are seeing progress on the civilian side.
QUESTION: Do you contest the Post’s conclusion that once U.S. forces have pulled out in 2014, and by extension there would be some sort of revision in the civilian presence, that the impact on the Afghan economy would be such a shock that it would essentially go into a depression because it just isn’t robust enough right now to stand on its own two feet?
MR. TONER: Well again, I think that obviously development assistance is a key part of the integrated civilian and military plan for success in Afghanistan. And what’s important here to recognize as we move forward is that there’s going to be clearly more Afghan-led efforts in the military side as we’ve – as we head towards 2014. And on the civilian assistance side, we’re going to continue to put in place programs that we believe are sustainable. I think that USAID is already addressing many of the issues that were raised in the report concerning sustainability and oversight. And we’ve undertaken, we believe, in the past years some good efforts to change the way we do business.
QUESTION: Thank you.