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Mddle East Digest - June 7, 2011

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Washington, DC
June 7, 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 7, 2011

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QUESTION: And are you hearing from your interlocutors that President Saleh intends to return?

MR. TONER: We’re not – I don’t have any updates on his – whether he will return or not return. I know he’s receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and, as far as I know, continues to receive that treatment.

QUESTION: Would it be advisable that he consider this the beginning of his exile?

MR. TONER: Again, we went around and around on this yesterday. I think what’s important here is that there is an interim government in place in Yemen, and there is a strong constitution, and that we believe that there is now an opportunity to move towards the peaceful transition that we’ve been urging.

QUESTION: Have you been able to get any sense from Ambassador Feierstein that such a political transition is at hand, or is the interim government committed to continuing Saleh’s policies of the past 33 years?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we need to give this a little bit of time, but clearly he’s been talking to officials within the interim government, including Vice President or acting President Hadi and conveying our views that we believe we should begin – that that transition should begin.

QUESTION: Do you say interim government just because the president is not in the country? The rest of the government remains intact.

MR. TONER: Right. There’s a – the civilian government remains in power and intact. That’s an important – thank you. That’s an important clarification.

QUESTION: So it’s not a government of transition or a government of change in any way.

MR. TONER: It is. It is a government that is now led by the vice president who is now the acting president.

QUESTION: And are you –

MR. TONER: But again, what I would clearly reiterate is that we want to see a peaceful transition take place, one that’s in keeping with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s efforts and the agreement that they put forth, I guess, two weeks ago. Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Keeping in mind that –

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Just – I’ll get to you. We’ll let –

QUESTION: Did the U.S. get in touch with Saleh to check up on his health?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware that we’ve had any contact with Saleh.

QUESTION: While keeping in mind that most of the people who were serving under President Saleh are still serving, is it fair to call it a, quote, “transition government” and then to follow up –

MR. TONER: I didn’t think – I didn’t call it a transition government. What I said is that there is an acting president in place, and what we want to see now is a move towards an orderly transition, a peaceful transition.

QUESTION: And then in terms of the political opposition, does the U.S. have a good sense of what party or parties are in a position to try to lead the government in a different direction?

MR. TONER: Again, Rosalind, this is a – it’s important to keep the focus on where it should be, which is on the Yemeni people and this is really – these are decisions that they need to make. What we’re calling for is that the transition should begin for an orderly political process, and ultimately one that addresses the concerns that we’ve seen raised by the many protestors and demonstrators over these past weeks. But it’s really up to the government and the oppositions to -- the opposition members to get together and begin that process.

QUESTION: How important is it, even for the United States, that there be some sort of quick resolution to this process, in light of the significant al-Qaida presence in the country? And I think the Pentagon said today that military training, U.S. training of Yemeni forces has ceased.

MR. TONER: Well, Brad, it’s always a concern, al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen. And it’s the reason why we’ve had such an ongoing robust counterterrorism cooperation there. But, as we said, many times that that cooperation isn’t hinged on one individual and that we’re going to continue to work with the present government. But also, as Yemen begins this transition process, we’re going to continue to work with the government on those kind of – counterterrorism cooperation. Again, it’s hard for us to put a timeline on this process. What’s important is that the Gulf Cooperation Council has come up with a plan, an agreement that charts a clear way forward.

QUESTION: Did you ask the Saudis to take care of President Saleh?

MR. TONER: Did we ask them to --

QUESTION: The Saudis, to take care of him.

MR. TONER: You mean to accept him for medical treatment? Or to --

QUESTION: Or to convince him to stay in the Saudi --

MR. TONER: Look, the Saudi Government’s been playing a very supportive and productive role in Yemen. I don’t believe we swayed their decision to accept him for medical treatment one way or the other. He went there at their invitation.

QUESTION: But in terms of the political dynamic, is the U.S. asking the Saudis to persuade the president that he should perhaps step aside now?

MR. TONER: And, again, I’ll just reiterate what I’ve already said, which is that he is there. He is receiving medical treatment. I’m not sure how long he’ll be there. But that doesn’t mean that Yemen can stay in a stasis. It needs to -- the government that continues, that’s in place, a civilian government, needs to begin that transition process. We need to see an end to the violence that we saw last week. And we need to see all sides moving forward on a constructive basis.

QUESTION: Can we ask – can you take one more? Or can we move to Libya?

MR. TONER: Sure. I’ll finish them.

QUESTION: How much longer –

MR. TONER: How much longer?

QUESTION: -- is the U.S. willing to wait for some sort of transition to take place?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s not for us to put specific timelines on what’s happening in Yemen.

Yeah, Brad.

QUESTION: And what concrete signs have you seen from this government – bearing in mind that it’s the same government as Saleh’s government – that shows a willingness to lead to this transition?

MR. TONER: Again, we – the Gulf Cooperation Council was very active in the last several weeks in trying to bring people to the negotiating table and to come up with an agreement that charted a way forward. We supported those efforts. President Saleh, very last minute, as we all know this narrative, declined to sign that agreement. He has now left the country to receive treatment for his injuries. The violence that we saw last week we don’t want to see again. And so, there’s an urgency insofar as there’s an opportunity, there’s a window here where the government can move forward.

QUESTION: But have they indicated that they’ll sign this agreement, that now that he is not there, the vice president, who is the acting president, would sign this agreement?

MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to characterize what we’ve heard or what our discussions have been with them. But we believe that they need to recognize that there’s -- that there needs to be – a credible transition begin.

QUESTION: Can you explain where is – how – where is the NATO going in this moment in Libya? Because it is not clear. We are hearing bombardments all day in Tripoli, day and night. It seems like a hunting. What’s going on? What’s going on with the people there? What information exactly do you have, and when do you think this is going to end? Where we are going from here?

MR. TONER: Well, again, let’s take a step backwards and remember what and why NATO is there. NATO is there to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and that – the mandate of that resolution was to protect the civilian population. NATO is working diligently to degrade the military capabilities of the Libyan forces, and I think its strikes, air strikes, are evidence of that ongoing commitment to, again, degrade Qadhafi’s forces so that they can’t carry out indiscriminate attacks against Libyan civilians.

QUESTION: But do you think there is still power in the Qadhafi forces? They have a power to combat in this moment?

MR. TONER: They’ve – I mean, we’ve seen that they’ve shown an ability to adapt to – again, look, for me to talk about operational details, you’re really better off going to NATO command and control in Italy. But what I can say is that they’ve shown an ability to adapt to the changing environment and become resilient and continue, as I said, these attacks against civilians, innocent civilians. So what NATO is trying to do through a multiple array of devices, is degrade that capability.

But again, I think as – in terms of how long, it’s impossible to say. I mean, we continue on the political side to put pressure on Qadhafi to try to wear down his regime to make them aware that the writing is on the wall and that they need to step down. And those around him increasingly are getting that message. We’ve seen some high-level defections. But it’s impossible for me to say when that’s going to take place.

QUESTION: In the political field, there is a government there in Libya and there’s – I mean, who is managing the situation in Libya? What’s going on in this moment? How are these helpful? What’s going on there?

MR. TONER: I’d refer you to the government in Tripoli, the Libyan regime in Tripoli, to answer those kinds of questions. We continue to urge Qadhafi and his regime to read the writing on the wall, as I said, and recognize that the international community and the Libyan people see them as illegitimate.

QUESTION: Qadhafi apparently was on state radio a couple of hours ago saying that he’s staying in Tripoli and he would be there dead or alive. Is this just setting himself up?

MR. TONER: His rhetoric continues. I’m not going to comment on his latest statements.

QUESTION: I was reading a Twitter of the vice deputy of Israel, saying that Israel – the position of Israel in this moment, talking about what’s going on, the clashes in the border with Syria. He said that this is a tactical – a political tactic from the Syrians in order to divest the attention from the situation in Syria, trying to move some of the Palestinians in Syria, moving to the frontier of Israel. Do you have any view on that?

MR. TONER: I mean, I think I said yesterday, I mean, there’s – we don’t have any hard evidence, but we’ve seen this kind of behavior before, and certainly it seems in keeping with the Syrian regime’s actions that they would try to deflect or distract international attention from what’s going on internally in Syria by encouraging these kind of protests.

QUESTION: Mark, on Syria, too. The French foreign minister has said yesterday that he agreed with Secretary Clinton to ask the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution – on the draft resolution condemning Syria. Do you know when the Security Council will vote on this draft?

MR. TONER: I don’t know when that vote may or may not – may take place. I don’t know.

QUESTION: What’s the latest about Ambassador Ford in Syria? Is he able to meet with Syrian Government officials to express U.S. concern about this?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. I have not – I haven’t taken the temperature, if you will, there today in terms of what – who he’s – he’s had requests in to meet with the Syrian Government – I think I mentioned this last week – and those requests have been deferred, denied, I don’t know how you want to put it. But he continues to meet with a wide range of actors within Syria, and again, it helps provide us with a better picture of what’s going on there.

QUESTION: But does – but the Syrian Government is refusing to – (inaudible) his requests?

MR. TONER: He had not been granted access, I believe, as of last week. I don’t know if that’s changed. I’ll check.

QUESTION: What about any conversations between this building and Ambassador Mustafa?

MR. TONER: Here within Washington?


MR. TONER: I’ll check on that as well.


QUESTION: Do you think that Asad thinks that he’s different from what’s going on in Libya, that he is not touchable? How – what interpretation do you make?

MR. TONER: You’re asking me to enter into the mind of Asad, and I really can’t. It’s pretty clear that while he’s talked a great game about reform from the time he came into power, he delivered very little, if nothing, and continues to do so, and meets the demands of legitimate protests or legitimate demands of these protests, rather, with a brutal crackdown and repression. We continue – our focus remains on garnering international pressure and bearing it down on his regime through sanctions and through other ways and means, and we’re looking at other ways and means to do so, to put pressure on him.

QUESTION: So we are in a situation very close what happened in Libya, maybe in the infant stages?

MR. TONER: I’m not comparing the two at all. In fact we’ve – it’s too easy to try to put a one-size-fits-all approach here --

QUESTION: Looks similar.

MR. TONER: -- but in fact all these situations are different. Where we have been consistent on is our belief that in the universal rights of these citizens to express their desires for a better future and to protest or demonstrate peacefully.

In the back.

QUESTION: Different topic. Back on Syria, actually.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was a prominent Syrian blogger who was apparently dragged out of her house --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- earlier today by a couple youth. I was curious if you had any comment on that. I believe she’s a dual-citizen --

MR. TONER: Well, in fact --

QUESTION: -- and so I don't know if there was anything you could say about that on that front too.

MR. TONER: -- I don’t have much to say, other than that we’ve got officials both in Damascus and in Washington working to ascertain more information about her and that includes confirmation of her U.S. citizenship. We’ve been unable to confirm that as of yet.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Embassy had done any work with her, given her prominent position in the country at all as an outspoken critic? Do you know if the Embassy had been in touch with her prior to all this or during any of the uprising?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I don't know. I’ll check. I would assume so, since they do, obviously, maintain relations with a wide range of actors within any given society that – in which we work, but I’ll have to check to confirm that.

Yeah. Go ahead, Goyal. Oh, Goyal. Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- the President said during his joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel that if the IAEA – and I’m quoting here – “this week determines again that Iran is continuing to ignore its international obligations than we, meaning the U.S. and Germany, will have no choice but to consider additional steps, including potentially additional sanctions to intensify the pressure on the Iranian regime.” Can you characterize what sorts of sanctions through what mechanisms those might be solved?

MR. TONER: No. I’m not going to get into the details. The President spoke to this issue. I have nothing to add except that – just continue to stress that there’s a door that remains open to Iran. It continues to fail to walk through that door towards transparency and engaging the international community and coming clean about its nuclear program. And indeed, if it doesn’t come – if it doesn’t take that opportunity for engagement, we’ve always said that there’s a sanctions side, and I believe the President was talking to that.

QUESTION: Is the – is there any way of exploiting what appears to be growing political instability within Tehran in order to get it to come clean, as it were, on its nuclear program?

MR. TONER: We would certainly be hopeful that elements within Iran would recognize the opportunity to engage with the international community and to become transparent about its intentions, the intentions of its nuclear program, but we also remain skeptical.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. believe that there – that these elements potentially exist within the political structure?

MR. TONER: I – look, I said what I said.

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